Light Over Water: The Genesis of a Music
by Ingram Marshall
Light Over Water is a long, unbroken composition with contrasting sections whose boundaries are so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Formally, it is a balancing act among its widely divergent moods. Technically, it is a kind of symphony played by an orchestra of both electric and natural instruments, and frozen into its idealized form by means of a multi-channel tape recorder. In its formal scope and approach to orchestration, it departs radically from other music made with synthesizers. Yet to call it electronic music is not entirely misleading.
John Adams has an aversion to the term “electronic music,” at least in connection within his own work. He feels it has become a catchword that recalls the era of musique concrète, the scraping, screeching, hard-edge days of the first music recording studios and the names associated with them: Varèse, Stockhausen, Ussachevsky. If the term “electronic music” implies a stylistic distinction, John Adams wants no part of it. But such a distinction need not be drawn, for the term is a general one embracing a multitude of persuasions, and can mean simply any music that relies on electronics for its realization.
Virtually every young composer whose musical language grew to maturity during the sixties and seventies was affected by the electronic medium’s apparently infinite range of possibility and by its otherworldly universe of novel sounds. The potential for a music that could exist in a disembodied state, pure and no longer dependent on the unpredictable midwifery of the live performer, acted as an irresistible magnet to a whole generation of composers fortunate enough to inherit the fruits of a technically advanced society.
But if Light Over Water is electronic in a technical sense, in perhaps a purely aesthetic one it is rather a kind of orchestral music clothed in electronic garb. This paradox makes more sense in light of Adams’s earlier music. Even though his better-known pieces – Shaker Loops, Harmonium, and Phrygian Gates – are strictly acoustic (do not involve studio amplification by electrical means), they inspire within the listener subliminal awareness of the electronic experience. The repetition pattern techniques pioneered by Steve Reich are still evident in both Phrygian Gates (1977) and Shaker Loops (1978). But the complex of slowly shifting rhythms of color and nuances of melodic modulation that Adams superimposes on, and makes grow out of, a highly energized, pulsating surface is more important. This chiaroscuro effect, riding over a bright, dancing, energized surface, came from a heightened sensitivity to sound, which Adams derived from working with the intimate form of electronics. As one could sculpt and mold sound in the studio, using the tape recorder and modular synthesizer, so one could return to the instruments of the orchestra, as Adams did, and compose for them as if they were a breed of super-synthesizers, the most flexible and vital of all.
Shaker Loops, a work that began as a study for three violins and eventually became a half-hour composition for full string orchestra, was influenced by electronic studio techniques. The loops refer to little melodic fragments that are repeated over and over by the players. When each instrument is assigned a loop of different length, the resulting counterpoint among the parts is in constant flux. This technique, an extended and more complex approach to the phase patterns of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, has its analogue in the recording studio, where tape loops (literally, segments of magnetic tape whose tails are spliced to their heads and which generate infinitely repeating melodic or rhythmic figurations) are a common means of creating textural continuity.
The timbral awareness of Shaker Loops also reveals Adams’s long-time experience with sound synthesis. Much of the haunting, spectral quality of the piece derives from the unusual use of the natural harmonics of the strings themselves: in the shimmering upper resonances of these freely vibrating strings, one is reminded of delicately filtered electronic sounds.
By 1981, Adams’s ideas of massed sonorities and a carefully woven internal structure of shifting textures had grown and were realized in immense proportions. Harmonium, the huge choral setting of texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, for 100-piece orchestra and 200 voices, brought to a logical conclusion the experiments begun only three years earlier with the little study for three violins. Despite Harmonium’s predilection for traditional orchestral sonorities and resources, one can still discern in it the timbral influences of the synthesizer and electronic studio, particularly in the way Adams uses repetition and harmonic stasis to create sonic washes – great waves of modulating timbres that sparkle with electricity. Harmonium shares with Light Over Water an introspective, meditative feeling infused with an intense emotion that is more pronounced than in Shaker Loops or Phrygian Gates.
In the summer of 1982, Adams composed a score for the film Matter of Heart, a documentary about the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. He worked with the synthesizer, but with a digital keyboard version more sophisticated than the older modular analogue type used during the late sixties. He combined the “living” sound of a string orchestra with the electronic parts, and a new timbral merging was born. If electronic music had earlier opened up new avenues of instrumental writing, then the opposite was now happening. The instrumental world had begun affecting the way Adams’s electronic music sounded. Gone were the swishes and swoops and futuristic sound effects of early tape music - the massed sonic conglomerates, the Varèsian granitic sounds. In their stead comes simple melodic and harmonic invention, but in timbral robes unheard before.
As synthesizers come to mimic the “real thing,” they truly begin to live up to their hitherto inappropriate name. Technology offers the possibility of a truly synthetic orchestra. Thus Adams, who has a natural gift for composing the lyrical and expressive sounds of instruments, found a technology that could augment and reinforce the orchestral traditions of several centuries.
This is the nascent situation of Light Over Water. Essentially electronic, it was nevertheless born out of the world of the orchestra. In previous works, Adams “electrified” his orchestrations. Now he “orchestrates” his electronics.
Light Over Water was conceived and executed primarily as a processed synthesizer piece, but to the array of electronically produced sounds. Adams added – in the recording studio of course – a kind of phantom presence in the form of a brass choir (trumpets, horns, trombones, and tubas). It inhabits a shadowy, distant plane and is sometimes so subtle and dark that its addition to the synthesizer music is not even consciously heard. Conceived as an integral part of the score, the brass sound – Adams calls it the music’s shadow – adds an expressive voice not available from purely synthesized sound.
There are three kinds of musical artistry at work in this situation. There is the synthesist, working in his own electronic music studio with an assortment of equipment and sonund processors (Casio digital keyboards, Serge modular analogue systems, various outboard line delays and harmonizers, and multi-track recording equipment). There is the orchestral composer, working with the brass configuration, using his knowledge of these instruments and their potential for mixed sonorities. There is the composer working precisely and painstakingly in the art of studio mixing, the arduous process of balancing and distributing the many discrete channels of recorded sound (as many as 24 in this piece) into a final “mix,” a process not dissimilar from the actions of a conductor molding and shaping the dynamic form of the music during a live performance. The craft of studio mixing is becoming a more significant tool for contemporary composers, as the technology of recorded music continues to be refined.
Translucent and meditative, the music of Light Over Water rarely jumps out but rather pulls the listener gently along. It is not music of bristling detail that invites a calculated analysis, nor is it music that induces a “trance.” Although there are moments of apparent stasis, where one feels almost suspended in time, the careful listener will detect a musical form that is predicated on the notion of constantly evolving gradual change. Sudden entrances are rare. More often than not, the listener finds himself in a new territory without remembering how he got there. These changes are not only purely structural but are also expressive. There is much subtle emotional modulation in this music.
Light Over Water is very personal and emotive music, although it is not necessarily romantic. (Adams and a number of other very different composers have been indiscriminately grouped by some observers into a “neoromantic” school.) Most romantic music charges ahead, sparing no effect for its hyper-expressive purposes. Adams purposely leaves something out, something he wishes the listener to fill in. In this sense, perhaps, he is a type of minimalist.
Light Over Water is music for the dance, so it has a kind of subdued physicality. It is not music for a specific dance, the game plan between composer and choreographer being very general from the start. It is music that is given choreographical meaning by the movements of the dance after the fact of its composition. Adams always had movement in mind – a sensation of pulse, something for the dancers to hang on to – yet that pulse is barely palpable in the slower, more dreamy sections. But in the faster sequences, it is aggressive, constructed around a rigid, patterned style.
Faced with the task of creating a single, unbroken musical statement nearly an hour in length (Lucinda Childs requested a sustained musical score), Adams eventually settled on the idea of a symphonic structure that would meld together highly energized fast movements with dreamlike, pastoral, and almost motionless slow movements. Six distinct sections are grouped into two larger parts. In Part I, a sforzando attack in the synthesizer and low brasses on a low C slowly decays over a period of a minute, providing a dark, brooding backdrop into which the main body of the dance music, itself bright and glistening, is inserted. This opening up-tempo dance gradually winds down, thinning out, changing both mode and mood, eventually leading into a section of serene calm, a quiescent state full of quiet agitations and episodic excitations not unlike the periodic rustlings of a dreaming sleeper. This inner landscape gives way to a deeper and darker terrain, ushered in by the long, luxurious bottom tones of the synthesizer. Here the shadow choir of muted brass joins the long sinuous lines of the synthesizer in a slow polyphony that is serenely lyrical, disturbing, and unsettling.
The only abrupt surprise in the entire score, a rather buoyant little clock pulse, signals the next section, a quickly moving “shaking” dance. The clock pulse, at first a single stroke, is joined one by one by other little figurations, which transform the music’s textural surface into a whole train of bubbling and ticking pulses. The bright colors then begin to grow somber and the rhythms even out into a more regular pulsation distinctly reminiscent of the shaking tremolando strings of Adams’s Shaker Loops. As the music takes a darker turn, the mode changes momentarily and mysteriously suggests the slendro flavoring of certain Balinese music. A distant trumpet seems to issue from the music’s depths as it rattles around in curiously metallic timbres. As the persistent shaking grows softer and silkier, the motion is sublimated and prepares for the transition to Part II.
The second part of Light Over Water has a two-part form: a slow pastorale gives way to a long, gently rolling continuum, which, as it unfolds, gradually acquires power and massiveness, culminating in the heroic music of the finale. The meaning of the title becomes much clearer, as the music, which has seemed watery and submerged, is flooded with a radiant light. Adams composed much of the score in a remote converted cattle barn in the lush, verdant hills along the Pacific coast south of San Francisco. The influence of the natural world is quite apparent in this music, especially in the opening of Part II. Slow, birdlike glimmerings are supported by a deep drone in the bass. These calls are later supplanted by the more human sound of the French horns keening away in a slow, canonic overlay. One feels the pictorial nature imagery giving way to a more plaintive human feeling, to an atmosphere of searching and longing.
Indeed, the title of the piece is derived from the changing vistas Adams witnessed from his hillside perch. The Pacific Ocean, only a few miles distant, was hidden by winter fog and rain, but frequently illuminated by sudden appearances of brilliant light. Introspection is Adams’s natural inclination, even if it is more pronounced here that in his other works. The longing restlessness is further heightened by the tonality of this section, with its ambiguous oscillation between E minor and G major.
In the last section of the music, there exist some disturbing – in the context of the overall consonant feeling of the piece – polytonal modulations, which increase the sensation of movement. When the final minutes of Light Over Water reclaim the original tonality of E-flat major with a vengeance, one does not feel that one has arrived there without resistance. The brasses are virtually unleashed and make their most assertive appearance, first declaiming then letting forth a volley of unrestrained cries. Compared to the plaintive wails of the preceding section, these cries seem unobstructed, even triumphant. The final moments are almost Brucknerian, and the resemblance is not just harmonic – the hammering away on the tonic – but sonorous as well, for the brasses, wit their pure resonating triads, have the last heroic word.
The union of music and movement is a mysterious, almost alchemical event. To be successful, a collaborative relationship, such as the one that produced Available Light, requires a delicate balance of artistic sensitivities. In our time, the term “collaboration” has somewhat lost its original connotations of rapport and interchange and is now used loosely to describe almost any simultaneous presentation by two or more artists, even when only the thinnest of threads link together their individual statements. The passive relationship between the mutually coexistent music of John Cage and the choreography of Merce Cunningham is perhaps the most celebrated example of how generalized the idea of collaboration has become. A Cunningham dance can, in many instances, exist independently of the music. The dancers hear the music, but they do not necessarily listen to it. This is not the case with Available Light, wherein the choreography is wholly and intricately wedded to the musical score. As the elements came together, there was still much surprise, and many encounters with the unknown. When John Adams was asked about his first impressions of Lucinda Child’s completed choreography, he responded:
||It was a shock. I realized at the moment, and it had never dawned on me until then, that I had been all along imaging a choreography, in a very vague way…. What struck me, when I did see the dance, was how Lucinda had responded to the score by creating a kind of overlapping structure in her choreography that often went in opposing directions from the structure of the music. This choreographic structure is frequently on another planet, expressively, from what’s going on in the music. For example, there are moments when the music is absolutely still, motionless, yet the dance is extremely active. This is not to mean that there are not moments when the music and the dance are made to coincide harmoniously. In fact when those moments do happen, perhaps just because they are infrequent, there is great beauty and power.
Although it may at times appear that the dance and the music are gong in different directions, the actual detail of the choreography is precisely attuned to the music. Adams commented about Lucinda Childs’s way of working with the music:
||She has an extraordinary ear. Picking out the most subtle variations in timbre and rhythm in the music, she has choreographed every single second of the score…. It’s not at all a Cage-Cunningham situation, where the music can change with each different performance. I found that even if I left out some miniscule detail from the final mix (and this was easy to do, given that we were at times working with upwards of 24 channels of sound), it caused all sorts of chaos with the dancers. Her fidelity to some level of the music, not necessarily emotional, is extraordinary.
When asked if this piece is a collaboration in the true sense, Adams responded:
||I would construe the term to mean work that’s built through a continuous consultation and exchange of ideas and feedback. Because of the geographical problem and because of the fact that I was composing the music while she was in France working on another project, there was only a kind of general concord about the larger form, the most important of which was the duration and the fact that she did not want a work that was broken down into little separate movements. She wanted a kind of grand arch. This was an awesome challenge for me because I don’t write the kind of gradually evolving, patterned repetitive music that she is used to working with, like Glass [Philip Glass’s score to Dance] or John Gibson [Relative Calm]. This is why I finally settled upon the idea of the symphonic structure, with its slow and fast movements. In fact that is why there are slow, really slow, movements here.
The reference to symphonic structure says much: it allows for a new form of expression in the context of an aesthetic – continuous or minimalist music – which traditionally remains aloof. It appears to be a key to understanding Light Over Water and all of John Adams’s music. He has adopted some stylistic elements of minimalism, especially the use of repetition, consonance, and pulse, but he has gone far beyond the structural simplicity of so much of that music. Adams makes use of graduated change over sustained periods, but his big, contrasting ideas and dramatic approach to form betray the minimalist aesthetic of “those vast prairies of non-event,” leaving behind coolness, detachment, and emotional blandness. Light Over Water, as a work of pure music and as a score for the dance, is a manifestation of John Adams’s involvement with music as a vehicle of expression.
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